Director Susana Nobre on Berlinale Forum Title ‘Jack’s Ride,’ a Memory-Laden Trip from Portugal & ’80s New York

Jack’s Ride
Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival

Portuguese director Susana Nobre’s second fiction feature film, “Jack’s Ride” is a 70-minute memory-laden road movie that weaves concentric circles through the urban, industrial and natural landscapes of a small town, 20 miles from Lisbon, while reminiscing about 1980s New York.

63-year old, Joaquim (Joaquim Calçada) has just been made redundant after working in heavy industry in Portugal and as a taxi driver in the 1980s, in New York.

To comply with the unemployment benefit red tape he must collect stamps from companies, confirming that he is looking for work. This offers the starting point for a journey through an atlas of different places and memories – mixing together the local landscapes and his life story, while exploring multiple border zones – that between old age and youth, work and retirement, New York and Portugal and heavy industry and natural settings.

The film focuses on the economic crisis of Portugal in 2009, which sparked Calçada’s redundancy and previous crises, such as the stock market crashes in the 1980s which had a major impact on his life in New York. With jet black dyed hair, Calçada is a brooding presence in the film, recollecting his past while facing the future.

Nobre is one of the founding members of Portuguese producer Terratreme, that was created in 2008, with five core directors and one producer, and now an impressive roster of 50 directors. It is one of Portugal’s leading producers of films on the international festival circuit, including Pedro Pinho’s “The Nothing Factory,” João Salaviza’s “High Cities of Bone,” and co-productions such as Chilean Marcela Said’s “Los Perros.”

Nobre’s first feature “Ordinary Time” premiered at Rotterdam in 2018. She has also produced six feature-length documentaries and three shorts. Variety chatted to Nobre before “Jack’s Ride” bows at the Berlinale in Forum.

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What was the starting point for this project?
I met Joaquim while working in an adult education program, in the town of Vila Franca de Xira, between 2007 and 2011. This was a period of major economic recession in Portugal. I met many people like Joaquim who had been made redundant and suddenly had to rethink their lives. They told me their life stories. Joaquim stayed in my mind. I worked with him in my documentary about this experience, called “Active Life,” and later my short film “Trials, Exorcisms,” inspired by the life stories I had heard. “Jack’s Ride” is based on his true story.

What attracted you to his story?

On one level he was the most eccentric character that I met, and very attentive, interested to hear about other people. He’s a great observer, a complex person. He can be very direct, even violent, which was necessary for the tough life he led as a taxi driver at night in New York in the 1980s. People like him were the true entrepreneurs of his generation. He was born in a village and decided to emigrate, and taught himself English. During the dictatorship in Portugal, emigration offered a way for people to set their own destiny.

What was it like working with him on this project?

He was extremely dedicated and disciplined. He also directed me – to ensure we were making the film he wanted to make. To protect his image. There were things he didn’t want to show. A lot of the voiceover is based on conversations with him, and things that he wrote. He was very diligent about the right use of words, what sounds better in Portuguese. He was very participative. For example, there’s dialogue in the bedroom with his girlfriend, Maria, who is almost deaf. He was the only one who could direct her. He wrote the scene and rehearsed it with her.

He guides us through a complex mosaic of landscapes….

Yes. The film offers an atlas of memories and places. I wanted to link these very specific places together, in particular the village of Alhandra, near Vila Franca de Xira, where he grew up, and New York. I didn’t just want to jump between his experiences in the 1970s and 1980s and the present day. The town of Vila Franca de Xira offers a very cinematographic landscape – the railway line, the mountains and the Tagus estuary, big country estates, windmills and also a lot of heavy industry. He guides us through these different places, weaving together different memories and sensations. Until the 1980s, the town used to be a very active zone in metal working and heavy industry. It still has some very big companies like cement producer Cimpor. Some of the former factories have been dismantled and transformed into private condominiums.

A lot of the film is about Joaquim’s memories of New York but you’re discreet about the way you show New York. One of the first moments is a reverse tracking shot with him driving against a rear projection in which you highlight the artifice of the shot.
That traveling shot was always in the script. It works as a king of parable. I like exploring the line between fiction and reality. I’m always trying to address this in my films. In this case, the fiction began by listening to him. I am fascinated by how fiction is born and how it transforms reality.

Why did you choose to shoot the film in 16mm in a 4.3 aspect ratio?

I have always shot my films in video. But I thought that 16mm was better for showing the landscape and colors and would emphasize Joaquim’s presence. I liked the perception that the 4:3 format gave me, almost like offering miniatures of the landscape. It’s very physical. I liked that a lot.

How do you combine projects such as this with the rest of your work for Terratreme?

I work a lot on the administrative and production side of Terratreme, but I am also gaining more time for my own projects and producing works by our team of directors. We have an eclectic but complementary set of projects. For each project the idea determines the production model. We share certain social concerns, we were born in the same part of the world, have similar experiences, tastes and political and social orientation. It’s a real community.

What’s your next project?

I’m preparing “Cidade Rabat,” co-produced with France’s KinoElectron, supported by the CNC, ICA and Portuguese broadcaster RTP.  It’s about the neighborhood where I grew up in the district of Benfica in Lisbon. It’s a more romanesque, fictional tale. My previous fiction projects have been closely linked to the lives of real people, such as Joaquim. This always made me fearful of transgressing reality and being unjust, which created very tight constraints. This will be a melancholic comedy about a woman who is about to turn 40, whose life enters a period of chaos when she loses her parents and suddenly lives a second adolescence. It’s melancholic because the world in which she was born is about to disappear, but I think there will also be comedy. Like all my films, it will be a voyage of discovery. I don’t want to lose my spirit of adventure. This project will require much more precision, but I don’t want to create a prison for myself!